“Drama is life with the dull bits left out.”
The quote is quintessential Alfred Hitchcock and his appellation, The Master Of Suspense, is as common to him as Her Royal Highness is to The Queen Of England. Hitchcock was a shrewd technician, an innovator and dedicated manipulator who tangled wit and style into voyeuristic frightmares. He constantly stressed a desire for cinema to tell stories in pictures rather than words and he became so frustrated with the “dumbing down” of audiences that he never expected the average filmgoer to catch on to the subtleties he strived for.
The son of a humble greengrocer, Hitchcock (1899-1980) was a famous director before directors like Steven Spielberg became famous. Hitch, in fact, had the budding Spielberg removed from the set of Torn Curtain (1966) and repeated the affront 10 years later when the “wunderkind” Spielberg, fresh from Jaws, was seen hovering on the set of Family Plot (1976).
Unlike Spielberg, Hitchcock’s influence has spread though Hollywood, Bollywood and Pinewood and all necks of the woods in between. His career spanned 51 years and 53 films. Many are classics, all are interesting and none are boring. The curious, confirmed and converted can judge for themselves with Universal’s release of an eclectic selection of 14 Hitchcock titles on DVD (any two for $35) that comprise eight of his last nine films and include the famous (Vertigo, Rear Window), the frightening (The Birds, Psycho), the experimental (Rope, The Trouble Harry) and the failures (Torn Curtain, Topaz).
Chronologically, Saboteur (1942) is the first, a thrilling chase saga that reflects a recurring theme in Hitchcock films of an innocent man falsely accused of a crime. As in Vertigo (the Golden Gate Bridge) and in North By Northwest (the Presidential faces carved into rock at Mt Rushmore), Hitchcock uses giant American landmarks to heighten tension and spectacle, with the hero (Robert Cummings) chasing his nemesis into The Statue Of Liberty’s symbolic torch. Saboteur was the last film to credit Hitchcock is as a writer. In the future, he drew inspiration from factual events or incidents in his own life.
Shadow Of A Doubt (1943) was based on the case of serial strangler Earle Leonard Nelson, the real-life Merry Widow Murderer, who preyed on rich widows in the 1920s. Hitchcock’s favorite film before Strangers On A Train (1951) casts Joseph Cotten as the despicable Uncle Charlie, “a quiet boy” who is said to have changed after crashing his bike into a trolley car. Hitchcock wrote the incident into the screenplay to help explain Charlie’s madness, but Nelson had also cracked open his skull in a childhood mishap and Hitchcock suffered a lesser injury after a similar accident.
Rope (1948) is based on the infamous 1924 Leopold-Loeb thrill-killing when two bright young Chicago homosexuals stalked and strangled a 14-year-old boy. Banned in Chicago and censored elsewhere, Hitchcock once wrote of it as his “most exciting picture” but also dismissed it as a “stunt”…a daring one, set in a single room of a skyscraper and filmed in eight ten minute takes so that they appear on screen as one single shot during “real time” (7.30pm-9.15pm).
Rope, Rear Window (1954), The Trouble With Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958) were the five films “bought back” by Hitchcock and held as a legacy to his daughter until they were re-released in 1984.
"They would stay and watch"
“I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people if they see a woman across a courtyard undressing for bed, would not pull down the blind. They would stay and watch.”
Hitchcock liked bathrooms, blondes, bondage, handcuffs and trains and the critics cried “foul” over Rear Window in which a news photographer (James Stewart), confined to quarters with a broken leg, peers through a telescopic lens at rooms on the opposite side of the court and eventually sees a murder committed.
When Hitchcock was accused of voyeurism, he retorted: “sure he’s a snooper, but aren’t we all?” The guilty skulked away but the fans still bombard Hitchcock’s official website with more enquiries about Rear Window than any other film.
Hitchcock always had a soft spot for Shirley MacLaine’s first film, in which the trouble with Harry is that he’s dead! How to get rid of a body that won't lie down is the hook in this eccentric “humor of the macabre" in which the characters talk of the corpse as if discussing the price of fish. Hitchcock despised clichés and The Trouble With Harry was a true original only burdened by the restraint of its time.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) was first made by Hitchcock in 1934 and was based on an incident in London in 1911 known as the Sidney Street siege. When armed Russian radicals holed up in a house and held unarmed police at bay it was Winston Churchill himself (then Home Secretary) who authorized military intervention. Little trace of the episode remains in the remake, which tempted Hitchcock because the first “is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.” Nowadays the 1956 version is perhaps more famous for its heroine, Doris Day and the Oscar-winning song Que Sera, Sera, which was the only musical number ever in one of Hitchcock’s films and was used against his wishes.
Although many regard Vertigo (1958) as Hitchcock’s best, it flopped on first release and Hitchcock himself pointed to flaws in the narrative. French novelists Pierre Boleau and Thomas Narcejac specifically wrote From Among The Dead to interest Hitchcock in a screen version, but it wasn’t until years later that the director, unaware of their intent, discovered it.
The famous shot, in which Hitchcock simulates the sensation of vertigo by zooming the lens in while dollying out was inspired by Hitchcock recalling a bout of drunkenness when he imagined the world receding from him. Kim Novak, who replaced a pregnant Vera Miles in the role that would have made her a star, bridled against Hitchcock’s desire to deglamorise her for the part, but as usual, the master had his way.
“We all go a little mad sometime. Haven’t you?” - Norman Bates in Psycho
Robert Bloch’s novel was loosely based on real life nutter Ed Gein (as was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but what appealed to Hitchcock most was the suddenness of the murder in the shower…the scene that is the most shocking and the scene that became the most discussed in all of Hitchcock’s career. Before the imitators seriously cheapened Psycho, the film was seriously scary, and yet Hitch always claimed that Psycho was his “little joke” with the audience; that it was “a serious story told with tongue in cheek.” No-one believed him, of course, but there are clues: the stuffed birds, and his victim, a Miss Crane from Phoenix! Were they the catalyst for his next film?
Daphne Du Maurier’s novel, The Birds was also triggered by an actual attack by disease crazed birds. During filming, Hitchcock had cause to reflect on the term “a murder of crows” when he spoke to farmers who were losing young lambs to the swooping birds. The film is steeped in irony (Tippi Hedren keeping caged birds; then trapped in a phone booth being attacked by marauding gulls) and rich in sounds, silence…and suspense. There is no music, but there’s an eerie presence as she sits, silently waiting for her children as crows gather menacingly in the school playground and in the end there’s a low ominous hum as more birds assemble suggesting carnage to come.
As psychological melodrama, Marnie (1964) has more depth than Psycho and like Vertigo it focuses on the obsessive love between flawed human beings. Sean Connery, who had already made his debut as James Bond in Dr. No, plays a wealthy businessman who catches kleptomaniac Hedren stealing from him and threatens to turn her in unless she marries him.
Connery’s fixation might have been more credible if Grace Kelly, who agreed to make a comeback in the film, had not been stymied by affairs of state on Monaco.
Shaken by the failure of Marnie, Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969) were disappointing espionage thrillers that were shunned by critics and the public alike. The master was increasingly being compromised by studio and budget restraints. Stars Paul Newman and Julie Andrews accounted for half the budget of Torn Curtain and were miscast. Topaz had a no-name cast and an incomprehensible plot. Again, both stories were inspired by factual incident…but it was difficult to tell.
With elements of Shadow Of A Doubt, The Wrong Man and Psycho, Hitchcock’s penultimate film was his darkest and most graphic and is under-valued even today. Frenzy (1972) was his first European film in 20 years and it marked a return to form for the old master. As usual, Hitchcock shunned the norm by revealing his "necktie killer" in the first reel and switched the focus to the wrongly accused as he battles to prove his innocence. The law is served by a London detective who discusses the case with his dotty wife and suffers the gastronomic ghastlies she dishes up. The funniest scene in all of Hitchcock leads to one of his most inspired. Trapped in the rear of a speeding van with a corpse in a sack, the frenzied killer searches for a crucial piece of evidence…let’s say it’s a needle in a potato sack!
"he departs with a playful wink at the camera"
Hitchcock was 77 when he made his last film, Family Plot (1976). He had undergone heart surgery during production but a pacemaker kept him ticking. A fake psychic (Barbara Harris) and a psychotic cabbie (Bruce Dern) cook up a plot to cheat a wealthy widow of her loot. In a prophetic final cameo, Hitch is a silhouette in a registry of deaths office and he departs with a playful wink at the camera. Hitchcock would have revelled in the irony of that. He could not have scripted it better.
Published January 30, 2003